A few millennia ago a nomadic people wandered the broad expanse spreading from modern Iran to Egypt or even further. Collectively, they referred to themselves as Ivrim which, logically enough, meant “traverse or pass over”. Culturally and demographically they were insignificant and never had much impact on their neighbors. Mainly they kept to themselves which was the way the liked it, wandering and minding their own business.
Historically the Ivrim were a dud if by “history” one means victorious generals, and vast empires. Neighbors like the Egyptians and others considered them nuisances at best. What the Ivrim accomplished culturally, however, is an entirely different matter. They largely achieved mass literacy among males (females weren’t explicitly excluded: female leaders, jurists, and scholars occupying positions of respect were not unheard of then or among the later descendants of the Ivrim). The Ivrim also had the first written constitution to guarantee equal justice under law for all. Their constitution also established an independent judiciary with codified and enforced rules of evidence and procedure.
The Ivrim had a system of progressive taxation that didn’t unduly burden the less fortunate, health care and care for the elderly and infirm, and by no means least significant, they practiced the rudiments of personal hygiene and public sanitation. In today’s terms, the Ivrim had a social safety net designed to ensure the community as a whole that everyone’s basic needs would be met.
Of such things is greatness born but largely due to the illiterate populations and self-aggrandizing rulers surrounding them, Ivrim accomplishments, with one tragic exception, were lost and had to be rediscovered all over again beginning in the Middle or Dark Ages (which weren’t “dark” for everybody.) The world lost two millennia of progress and civilization while the keys were right there in front of everybody.
The Ivrim weren’t geniuses, just ordinary people willing to look at their world in a way quite different from their neighbors. Nor did these accretions of civilization happen all at once; it was a process of centuries as the pieces fell into place.
It can be argued that general literacy was the most important of their achievements because without it the constitution and court system would have been dead letters as was the case with other codes of law at the time (none of them egalitarian). Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, for instance was little more than window dressing to be changed, ignored, or withdrawn at the whim of the monarch du jour.
We know literacy was firmly embedded in their culture by the 5th century BCE because during that period laws were enacted requiring recognition of the rule of law as well as requiring frequent public readings of it. The rationale was that people couldn’t be expected to obey the law if they didn’t know what was in it. The same assumption finds an echo in modern American law where, literacy being presumed to be universal; jurisprudence holds that ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it.
An independent judiciary with codified and enforced rules of evidence and procedure could have saved the US and countless other nations tremendous turmoil and bloodshed. It means “play by the rules”. People often characterize a court decision with which they disagree by remarking that one of the parties to the court action was “let off on a technicality”. They fail to understand that law is inherently “technicalities” and nothing but. That’s what it’s for; law without technicalities is lawlessness and state-condoned capriciousness. The Ivrim knew this thousands of years ago.
Progressive taxation that doesn’t unduly burden the less fortunate is a concept the Republican Party, like the Ivrim’s neighbors, still can’t grasp. In this context it is appropriate to note that the Ivrim’s neighbors were ruled by the wealthy and powerful members of their cultures.
In many ways, community standards of health care and care for the elderly and infirm, go hand-in-hand with principals of basic personal hygiene and public sanitation, specifically hand-washing and regular, if not daily, bathing. The Ivrim had laws about those, too, grounded in the firm belief that each Ivri bore personal responsibility for the community as a whole, respect for the law, and toward their traditions and leaders.
So just who were these remarkable people and what became of their law?
They and their law are still with us today. Over time, as they came in contact with ancient Greece, they came to be known by the Greek name “Hebraios” or Hebrews, then as Israelites, and their law is known as the Torah (“Old Testament” to those who don’t recognize any of the various Christian Bibles the as the amended Original Testament.)
Traditionally, they had been led by Moses (“Our Lawgiver”). Ironically, Moses was an Egyptian name and it was from a non-Ivrim, his Midianite father-in-law, that Moses was shown how to set up a court system to administer the laws he had set down. The US isn’t the first nation to have a clogged court system.
The Israelite emphasis on literacy and study goes far to explain why today’s Jews, (less than 2% of the US population and 0.002% of the world population) have won 22% of all the Nobel Prizes ever awarded and 29% of the Nobel Prizes awarded in the last 63 years, and are represented similarly disproportionately in the arts and humanities. It also goes far to explain why, after being driven out of their land, Jewish enclaves were for the most part permitted to maintain and adjudicate according to their own laws.
That the Plagues that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages had a far lesser impact in the Jewish ghettos can be attributed to their tradition of basic personal hygiene and public sanitation. Put bluntly, the Jews didn’t experience the Dark Ages to the extent their neighbors did. Indeed, while the surrounding “superior” cultures were wallowing in filth and ignorance Jewish arts, culture, and scholarship flowered.
Characteristically, from the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 69 CE until the establishment of modern Israel in 1948, Jewish heroes have not been military leaders or valiant soldiers. The hopes of Israelite parents has consistently been to have their sons and daughters grow to be be scholars, teachers, and philosophers, or marry one, for it is they who are most highly respected in the Jewish value system.
There is an unfortunately sad note to Moses’ leadership, probably the only element of Israelite law that should have been forgotten, and forgotten permanently. In adhering to monotheism and serving the Eternal – a radical, though not unique innovation at the time – religious war entered the human vocabulary.
With one questionable exception under the faux-Jewish leader John Hyrcanus who ruled from135/134 to 104 bce, (Hyrcanus considered himself Jewish but the people didn’t buy it) the Jews have never engaged in coerced conversion and even today discourage voluntary conversion.
Proselytizing was not a major element their way except for their own apostate members, and Jewish proselytizing stopped entirely In the fourth century CE, after the Roman empire adopted Christianity as the state religion and made conversion to Judaism a capital offense, punishable by death for both the proselytizing Jew and the convert.
The Israelites did, however, wage active, bloody war against the non-Israelite peoples who occupied the Promised Land of Canaan. Though there is a significant difference between driving non-believers away (as the Israelites did) and forcing non-believers to convert by the sword, that distinction proved inconvenient to Christianity, and later Islam, with the result that the concept of religious war that replaced it was turned against them with a vengeance.
The needless tragedies resulting from Christian and later Islamic selective enforcement of the law are too grotesque to recount here beyond the mere names, and perhaps the numbers, recognized by everybody:
Jewish death toll estimates of the Crusades range as high as 250,000; entire cities, towns and villages were destroyed. Anti-Semitic pogroms even prior to the Nazis murdered similar numbers. Islam has fared no better though the putative followers of the Prophet have applied the zealotry of jihad to any population within reach they considered infidels. The modern turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere is only the most recent outrage of the past fourteen centuries.
Not until the Communist “religion” became a geopolitical force in 1917 has any other faith waged war on another for the stated purpose of compelling others to accept a foreign religion. Not the Persians, not the Greeks, not the Egyptians, not even the Romans (with the codicil that the Romans eventually felt it necessary to undermine Jewish institutions when it became obvious the Jews were in no mood to bend to Roman religious practices.)
Even the United Monarchy of David and Solomon (1009– 930 BCE), which became a regional power, vanquished many local enemies while requiring none of the conquered lands to accept Jewish law or tradition. These powers only demanded that vassal states recognize the authority of the rulers, pay tribute, etc.
We are therefore left with three profound questions which, at best, only lend themselves to superficial answers:
Q1: Why was the notion of religious war remembered by Judaism’s “daughter” religions at the expense of more critical concepts?
A1: Intellectual laziness, popular ignorance, actively discouraged literacy, and rulers placing power before the best interests of the people.
Q2: What crimes have the Ivrim’s descendants committed to warrant their treatment in every time and place they have lived including within their own borders after 1948?
A2: The mere fact of their existence, with perhaps a touch of cultural envy, as “proved” by mob mentality of the basest kind.
Q3: If the three faiths have so much in common can the violence and bloodshed be stopped?
A3: Yes; when statesmen become philosophers.
Leviticus 24:22 (written 1440-1400 BCE):Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born